Duncan G. Stroik, The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence and the Eternal. Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2012. 182 pages, 170 photographs and drawings.
Notre Dame’s Duncan Stroik has led the field of Catholic architecture for the last twenty years with unrivaled unity of purpose. He has designed and built churches as an architect and has edited and published the Sacred Architecture Journal as an academic. Within the field his name has been everywhere as one of the great conservative champions of traditional architecture as a rational and achievable alternative to ultramodern steel cathedrals and the tawdry McWorship centers of suburbia.
Professor Stroik’s complex argument for the fittingness of traditional architecture truly takes on an interdisciplinary character in an attempt to address the issue from all sides. Part historical, he addresses the question of how contemporary architecture has reached such a nadir and what historical questions need to be re-examined. Part theological Mr. Stroik examines the deeper Christian context of worship and how these fundamental roots affect Christian church construction. Professor Stroik’s context is specifically catholic but most of his points would apply to any liturgically oriented form of Christian architecture from the Eastern Orthodox to the Lutherans. Part liturgical, he employs the documents of the Catholic Church and their requirements to address which forms most apply address the intricate requirements of ancient forms as expressed in a modern world. Part architectural, he keeps a constant eye on the practical aspects of sacred architecture—after all, why does it matter what one should build if the modern arts are too degraded to create traditional churches? This is where Mr. Stroik is strongest, in arguing that we really can do better and it is only warped ideology and lack of commitment that so hamper the renewal of art in the modern world.
In the conservative tradition, Duncan Stroik’s work is not an ideological checklist for change, and he resists the temptation to provide a one-size-fits-all solution to a problem as large as the decline of sacred art and architecture. After all, nobody knows better than an architect that it is easier to bulldoze than to create. For long-term renaissance to stand a chance, Mr. Stroik has long understood that a new approach to education is needed, for priests and businessmen alike. Rather than criticizing from afar, Professor Stroik knows that is the responsibility of the specialists to communicate with persons who are juggling many concerns: this book is a key step in that direction, mapping out the areas of dispute and exploring meaningful implications of architectural forms with theology on the one hand, and practical needs on the other.
The book itself is a high quality, beautiful and profusely illustrated volume, and the seventy-dollar price tag reflects the enormous number of color illustrations that are integrated throughout the work. These illustrations, that include high quality photographs as well as numerous watercolor illustrations and architectural drawings, are not simply pleasant interludes amid meaty material, but the concrete illustrations of points that Stroik makes throughout. In truth, the reader gets the impression that as an architect and professor of the arts, Mr. Stroik could not teach without an image to comment upon or an illustration for his ideas. This is not a coffee table book: one could find cheaper volumes of less depth that provide just as many pictures of beautiful churches, (though the watercolors are unique), and if the reader is only interested in browsing some pictures, Barnes and Noble half-price shelf would furnish many options. If, however, one is interested in the current state of sacred architecture and the issues inherent in this battle, there is no better book on the market.